02/23/2009 1:00AM

Going beyond the numbers


Readers of DRF past performances are blessed with an array of invaluable trainer stats that accompany every horse's past performances. Players seeking more information about a trainer's tendencies also may program a wide range of high-quality statistical details via the advanced Formulator Web on drf.com. In the hands of an experienced player, all such stats help point out horses in the best possible or worst possible situations for that day's race.

Yet, there are some stats - with very quirky subtleties - that inevitably squeak past the programmers. Some of these quirks are so strong, they can outperform and outweigh a wide range of more obvious stats and lead to box-car winning payoffs.

For example, several years ago, Bob Baffert had a quirk that went under the statistical radar, but nevertheless was noticed by more than a few astute players on the West Coast. Baffert already was a multiple winner of Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races, and he also was known for his expert work with 2-year-old first- and second-time starters, especially at Del Mar when his best prospects usually were unveiled.

Some of the young horses Baffert sent to the post during those years - when Del Mar still had a dirt main track - came to the races with a string of bullet workouts. Some also came to the races with a Baffert-trained uncoupled stablemate with slightly less-imposing training drills. As one might have expected, the faster working Baffert youngster often attracted heavy play in the totes while the less-regarded and longer-priced Baffert-trained youngster turned out to be the live number in the race.

During a period of about five years, Baffert's work with first- and second-time starters at Del Mar were among his strongest and most reliable stats. But astute players who examined what happened with Baffert's uncoupled entries often took down the money wagering on the longer-priced maiden.

That is the kind of quirk I am talking about, a reality-based angle not included in traditional trainer stats. Yet this and other quirky tendencies can be uncovered by keeping private notes on any prominent trainer's less obvious approaches to his or her craft.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito has a quirk that he uses from time to time. In New York and only New York, Zito's quirk centers around his penchant to enter two horses in the same race and scratch one. For this quirk, I persistently have clocked Zito's win percentage significantly higher than his usual 15 to 18 percent range.

Several other trainers on different circuits exhibit the same tendency, and all it would take to find out who they are is a commitment to better your game with a little private research that goes beyond the published stats.

One of the most interesting quirks I've uncovered in the past 20 years is the one shared by Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger and his former full-time assistant Ian Wilkes, who still assists a semi-retired Nafzger and is doing well with his own modest-sized stable. The quirk involves horses both men have trained to perform in one-turn races from 6 1/2 furlongs to one mile.

Nafzger did textbook work with 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup winner Unbridled and with 2006 juvenile champion and 2007 Kentucky Derby-Travers winner Street Sense. But none of that had anything to do with the quirk he (and Wilkes) developed through the years.

I first took note of it when Nafzger was training a string at Canterbury Downs (now Canterbury Park) in the mid 1980's. A relatively low-percentage trainer with first-time starters, Nafzger won two races with Canterbury newcomers at 6 1/2 furlongs, a difficult distance for a young horse in mid-summer. One of those horses paid a huge price.

The third time I noticed a Nafzger maiden winner was with a second-time starter in a seven-furlong race at Arlington Park and the fourth was with an older horse turning back to that distance at the same Arlington meet. I was on both of those horses and have had more than my share of winning tickets courtesy of this quirk in the years since. Wilkes, for his part, also seems to have acquired this skill, or tendency, as evidenced by a few winners he's put over in his relatively short career and a Wilkes-trained first-time starter I spotted at Gulfstream Park last month.

This is what I wrote in a public handicapping forum about the Wilkes-trained 3-year-old Warrior's Reward prior to that colt's career debut in a one-mile, one-turn maiden race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 31. Also debuting in the field of 3-year-olds was Barbaro's full brother Nicanor.

"Taking a win-place flyer on first-time starter No. 5, Warrior's Reward, trained by Ian Wilkes, with three above-average five-furlong works at Palm Meadows plus other light drills to prepare for this. Strictly a longshot, but this barn is better than the first-time starter stats and has a special gift for one-turn races at seven furlongs and one mile.

"No. 4 Nicanor has been working well enough to run well, but he is sure to attract excessive play due to the publicity and his famous brother."

Warrior's Reward did win this maiden race and paid $63 to win and $29 to place. I'd say that was ample reward for a little private research that had uncovered a pattern that extends far beyond first- and second-time starters for both Nafzger and Wilkes. Indeed, both trainers tend to outperform their respective win percentages with horses trying 6 1/2 furlongs to a mile around one turn at any stage of their careers.

That's a quirk among many others uncovered through the years, a quirk not completely hidden from the statistical manipulations you can make with Formulator Web. But, realistically, sometimes the only way you will find these nuggets is through private observations that spot trends that slip between the cracks of DRF's finely tuned computer research.